Try this Rubric to Assess Student Writing: It’s Simple

In an earlier post, we proposed a simpler rubric to assess student writing, one which would allow us to track student progress in thinking and writing.  Here’s the general idea:


A Simpler Writing Rubric



Does this   piece of writing…



Max point   value


Getting   There:

Max point   value


Not Yet:

Max point value


Make a   strong point?







Support the point well?




Include a   strong conclusion?




Make it   clear why the reader should care?




Have a   great style?




Have few   or no grammar and spelling errors?




So how would you use this rubric?  First of all, you would reinforce again and again what it means to make a strong point and to support it , and how their conclusion should somehow tie back to why they are writing in the first place.

To see how this rubric differs from others, let’s score sample student essays and compare our scores to those obtained using the rubric provided by the NYS Board of Regents to score the critical lens essay.

As any New York-based high school English teacher knows, the critical lens essay prompt asks student to discuss two works of literature they have read from the perspective of a statement that is provided.  The student is required to provide a valid interpretation of the statement, agree or disagree with the statement (as he interprets it), and support his opinion using specific references to appropriate literary elements from the two works.

In the examples below, students were asked to write a critical lens essay based on the following statement:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly . . .”

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince, 1943

First, consider the following essay:

 For thousands of years, poets and philosophers have argued that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Indeed, love is a very powerful sensation, causing profound sensations of euphoria, almost to the point of inebriation.  Sentimentalists and overly romantic persons are the ones who believe that through love, one can see rightly.  However, what they see is a false veneer; they see a façade that reflects a semblance of truth but neglect to notice the myriad flaws of thinking with one’s heart.  Love blinds its victims, inhibiting their true ambitions, causing young lovers to make hasty and reckless decisions, and can be so utterly consuming that it leads to death. 

One character who exemplifies the drawbacks of love is Romeo, of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  As the tragic hero of the play, Romeo falls victim to an unlikely set of circumstances that ultimately lead to his, and his lover Juliet’s death. His one tragic flaw is his hastiness and his eagerness to be with Juliet.  It is his love of Juliet that causes him to make poor decisions, such as murdering her cousin Tybalt, getting married on a whim, and finally killing himself after seeing Juliet’s lifeless corpse, rather than to live without her.  Ironically, despite the connection of both lovers, both wind up dead.  This outcome is indicative that the inverse of Saint-Exupery’s quote is true:  If Romeo had not used his heart, he could have seen rightly.  He could have stayed with Rosaline and saved both the Montagues and Capulets from enduring his reckless love-inspired antics. 

Another character who is the paragon of being blinded by love is Jay Gatsby, of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”   Like Romeo, Gatsby is a hopeless romantic who has dedicated his entire career, life and being to wooing Daisy Buchanan.  Born into poor circumstances, Gatsby spent his entire life after meeting Daisy trying to impress her, often resorting to petty crime, bootlegging, and even possible murder to become wealthy and impressive.  He acquires and expansive, opulent mansion, reminiscent of European castles, and stockpiles it with many amenities from many colored shirts to a library full of uncut books.  Because Daisy is characterized as superficial and materialistic (her voice was “full of money”), Gatsby is able to win her over again.  However, this love is short lived because Gatsby is murdered.  Again there is much evidence that Gatsby would have been better off forgetting Daisy Buchanan and living his own life without the limiting factor of unrequited love. The reader learns through Gatsby’s father that the young Gatsby had drawn up a list of desirable character traits and a schedule that would make efficient use of his time.  This obscure allusion to Ben Franklin, an outstanding man and founding father of our nation, shows us that Gatsby was highly ambitious and had many talents and skills.  If he had not been so in love with Daisy, perhaps he could have become rich in his own right, without lust as an impetus.  He was certainly hard-working and fiscally shrewd enough to become a billionaire sands the wine and illicit activities.  As was the case with Romeo, had Gatsby not used his heart he could have seen matters coorectly, and made more coherent, sensible decisions, decisions that would have made him a more successful and a better person. 

It is quite shocking that anyone could be so naïve as to think “with the heart one can see rightly.”  Moderation of emotion, tempered with a good healthy dose of realism]/cynicism is the best option for leading a healthy life. If one only uses the heart to think and see and uses love as motivation and inspiration, they are doomed for failure and death.  It is a harsh, critical, and yet apt description of love.

Based on our new, simpler rubric above, this essay is a clear winner:

  • The writer makes a strong pointLove blinds its victims, inhibiting their true ambitions, causing young lovers to make hasty and reckless decisions, and can be so utterly consuming that it leads to death.   Score: 5
  • The writer supports the point well, with two detailed examples, one from Romeo and Juliet, the other from The Great Gatsby of how thinking with your heart only can lead to tragedy. Score: 5 
  • The writer includes a strong conclusion:  Moderation of emotion, tempered with a good healthy dose of realism]/cynicism is the best option for leading a healthy life. If one only uses the heart to think and see and uses love as motivation and inspiration, they are doomed for failure and death.  Score: 5 
  • The writer even makes it clear why the reader should care,  pointing out that this notion that love is the ultimate and highest goal for humanity has been promulgated for “thousands of years,”  and implicitly suggests that it is time for us to stop being naïve.  Score: 4
  • The writer has a great style and uses his/her command of the English language to keep us from being bored. Score:  3
  • There are a few grammatical errors, but generally, spelling and grammar are good.  Score: 2

In total, this essay scored 24/25 points (or 96%), which is pretty close to the Regents suggested score of 6/6.  (Please refer to the Regents Comprehensive Exam in English Test Sampler 2010 for the actual Regent’s rubric and recommended scoring approach. The rubric and essay samples begin on page 27 of this link )

Now let’s look another sample essay, one based on the same prompt.

Antoine de Sainte Exupery once said, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”  This means that just by looking at someone or hearing about someone, you cannot get a completely accurate sense about who someone is, nor can you know how you feel about them.  When one uses their heart, they can truly see how they feel about someone and truly get a sense of the person’s character.  I thoroughly agree with this statement because theres much more than meets the eye, also when you use your heart, you’re letting yourself decide how you feel and decide what you think about the person.  You are not developing ideas based on ideas and opinions of others.  I believe that this idea is shown in the novel Pride and Prejudice  by Jane Austin and Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. 

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is immediately turned off by Mr. Darcy’s cold and unsociable nature.  All she sees is a rude, egotistical and very serious man.  Thus, she vows to loathe him and she really considers him the last man she would ever want to marry.  Her initial opinions are based upon what she has seen and directly experienced.  She despises him because of his conspicuous qualities and what she sees right away but she does not give her heart any say in the matter. 

However, as time progresses, she beings to realize that she does have some feelings for him.  Although these emotions are influenced by her seeing him do some kind things, she allows her hate to be overridden because she feels in her heart that she does love him.  She sees that he is a good man and rather than just relying on what she sees or hears, she turns to heart, which gives her the true answer and allows her not to make the mistake of letting him go just because of her pervious notions of him. In the end, her heart is right and they get married.  

Another book that exemplifies this quote is Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer.  In this book, the protagonist, Bella Swan, moves to a town called Forks in Washington to live with her father.  When she first attends her school, she automatically sees a boy names Edward Cullen at lunch.  He is amazingly attractive, but is also sitting isolated with his family members in the cafeteria.  On top of that he is glaring viciously at Bella from across the room even though they have never met each other. Bella is very taken back by this action.  Then, when she goes to biology class after lunch, there are no seats open except for next to Edward. She reluctantly sits down next to him and he reacts very intensely.  He moves as far away from her as possible and looks very angry and tense.  Finally, when Bella goes to the office at the end of the day, Edward is there attempting to switch out of biology.  Bella feels very angry at Edward after seeing him act this way because she has not done anything to him. 

Bella’s feeling of disgust and anger are fueled and ultimately created by experiencing Edward act in such an awful manner.  Her opinions of him are totally based on what she sees him do since she knows nothing else about him.  However as mad as she is, she is still overwhelmed with feelings towards Edward and still has the urge to be near him.  She feels a certain connection with him which she is unable to deny despite her distaste for him and his rude reactions to her.  What Bella feels in her heart turns out to be right and it turns out Edward feels it too.  They were able to fall in love because Bella is able to get past her immediate feelings toward him and listened to her heart instead. 

It is very true that one should go by what they feel rather than by what they see or hear when making decisions.  People and things aren’t always what they seem and there may be more to them than you know. Your heart is almost always generally right in these situations and it gives you the most clear idea of what you are feeling.


According to the Regents scoring guide, this essay should receive a score of 5 or about 83%.    The commentary says that the response “provides a thoughtful interpretation of the critical lens that clearly establishes the criteria for analysis.”  It further states that the writer “develops ideas clearly and consistently with reference to relevant and specific evidence from both texts to show that people are not always what they seem.

Let’s see how the essay would fare using the rubric above:

  • Does the writer make a strong point?  The writer seems to make two points.  One is “when one uses their heart, they can see how they truly feel about someone and can truly get a sense of the person’s character.” The other is “when you are using your heart you are letting yourself decide what you feel and what you think about the person, you are not developing ideas based on the opinions and feelings of others.”  The main point is not as strong or as clearly stated as it could be.  Still, we know that the writer is basically agreeing with Saint-Exupery.  Score 4
  • Does the writer support the main point?  Not yet.  The example having to do with Pride and Prejudice actually supports the opposite of what the writer is trying to prove.  “Although her emotions are influenced by seeing him do some kind things…” suggests that Elizabeth Bennet is not seeing with her heart, an observation more than supported by the novel itself.  The example that having to do with Twilight is problematic for several reasons.  First, Twilight  is not literature.  We need to explain the difference between literature and pop novels to our students.  The basic difference is that it is really difficult to analyse a pop culture novel because there is not a lot to analyze.  When a novel cannot be analyzed, the student resorts to plot summary – there is nothing else to talk about.  In this case, the discussion about Bella was almost entirely plot summary, concluding with an argument that Bella was better off by allowing her heart to lead her to fall in love Edward.  Given that anyone familiar with the novel knows that  Edward is a vampire, this is a weak argument.  Score: 3 
  • Does the writer include a strong conclusion?  Not yet “Your heart is generally almost always right” might be a good conclusion for a greeting card, but not for an analytical essay.  Score: 2
  • Does the writer make it clear why the reader should care?  Not yet.  It is very difficult to convince the reader to care about what you have written if you cannot support your main point. Score: 2
  • Does the writer have a great style?  Not yet.   This piece is very wordy and at times confusing. Score: 2
  • Is the piece free of grammar and spelling errors?  Not yet.  Score: 2  

Using the rubric above,  this essay scored 15/25 points (60%)  which is quite a bit lower than the Regent’s recommended score of 5/6 (83%).    Yes, this is a “first draft” essay written under time constraints.  But so was the first essay we reviewed (and, by the way, so is the memo this student’s boss may one day ask for an hour before she needs it).

The difference in scores is largely a function of how the rubrics assess (or fail to assess) the quality of writer’s main point and support for that point. The Regents rubric, although far wordier than the one above, fails to assess the quality of the writer’s thinking.

The writer of this essay can and should be taught how to think more analytically. She has a good command of language and good recall of what she reads.  But the essay does not exhibit the level of thinking we should expect from our students.  To say this essay deserves a 5/6 is to contribute to the crisis employers have been bringing to our attention for more than a decade: The majority of graduates who enter the work place are not prepared for the communications challenges they face.   A rubric, such as the one proposed above, is a simple way to assess and track student progress  in terms of analytical thinking (and therefore good writing).  Try it and see what you think.


A Rubric to Track Critical Thinking

When it comes to assessing student writing, rubrics reign supreme.  There are probably enough of them to wallpaper every floor of the Empire State Building twice over.  And yet, colleges and employers tell us most high school graduates can’t write.  So maybe we need to find a different way to think about how to assess student writing.

Most writing rubrics look pretty similar.  They rate student writing across a range of factors, including whether the main idea is clearly stated, whether the paper is organized well, whether it includes rich vocabulary and whether it has grammar or spelling errors.   Rarely does a rubric allow the user to assess whether the written work tells us something worthwhile.  This is a problematic, because if the main point is not worth making, the paper, no matter how well-organized, richly worded, and grammatically polished,  is weak.

If we start with the basic premise that writing is just thinking on paper, then it makes sense to begin our assessment of writing with an assessment of thinking.   In an earlier post we laid down a general approach for how to assess student progress in critical thinking.  Now, let’s take that approach a step further and actually create a simple rubric to assess the level at which students are thinking about the words they read.

Let’s review the basics:  Well-written (or spoken) works should answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the point?
  2. Is the point one that is worth making?
      • Is it obvious?  (Do we already know it?)
      • Is it arguable? How?
      • Is it important? Why?
      • Is it interesting? In what way?
  3. Does the author adequately support that point?  If so, How?
      • Appeals to our emotion or to our belief in the author’s sterling reputation are not support for a main point, but they are worth talking about.
  4. Does the author tell why we need to know what he has written?
  5. Is there another way to look at look at it? 
      • Can you take what the author is saying and come up with a different  main point or conclusion?

Since each of these questions targets a different level of thinking, we can craft a very simple rubric to track student progress.    Let’s start with a rubric that will help track the critical thinking skills of students as they read. 

Can the Student Do This?

Not Yet

(0 points for each bullet)


(1-2  points for each bullet)


Identify the Main Point

  • Misses the point.


  • Gets the point 


Assess Whether the Point is Worth Making

  • Does not recognize a weak main point.


  • Explains why the main point is or is not a strong one. 


 Find support (or lack of support) for the main point?

  • Does not identify any support for the main point.
  • Does not distinguish strong from weak support.
  • Identifies support for main point.
  • Assesses whether support is strong or weak.




Answer “So What?”

  • Does not comment on what the author’s “takeaway message” is.
  • Does not offer a plausible takeaway message.

  • Explains what the author’s takeaway message seems to be.


 Think of another way to see it?

  • Does not present an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.
  •  Presents an opposing argument or alternative conclusion.

Based on this rubric, your weakest readers/thinkers would get a check;  your strongest would get a check plus 12 (Of course, you can use your own numbering system, but this is the general idea).

How would you use such a rubric?    The common core standards place a great deal of emphasis on the importance of having students read non-fiction and having them write logical arguments.   So let’s start by assigning students a non-fiction argument to read. The Battle of the Binge, by Jack Hitt, deals with a subject many teenagers can relate to and fits the bill nicely.    (By the way,  this selection is featured in the Norton Reader, a treasure trove of short non-fiction pieces, many of which are suitable for upper high-school students.)    The general approach would be to assign this piece for students to read, and then to have them critique it by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the author’s point?
  2. Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?
  3. How does the author support his point?
  4. So what? What do you think the author wants us to do or think about as a result of reading his work?
  5. Is there another way to see it?  What might be the counter-argument to this author’s claims?

Short answers are fine for this exercise.  Now let’s see how some sample responses would be scored on the rubric.

 What is the author’s point?  

  • 2 point response:  The author’s main point is that binge drinking on college campuses is a result of raising the legal drinking age to 21,thus depriving students the opportunity of “learning to drink” on campus.
  • 1 point response: The author’s main point is that it was wrong to raise the legal drinking age (implied, but not the main point).
  • 0 point response:  Binge drinking on college campuses was as big a problem in the 1970s as it is today.  (If the student entirely missed the point, you need go no further on the rubric:  The grade for this assignment is a “check.”)

          Is it a point worth making?  Why or why not?

  • 2 point response:   Yes, because it offers an interesting explanation of the cause of a big contemporary problem.
  • 1 point response:  Yes, because it is interesting (not specific).
  • 0 point response:  No because encouraging teenagers to drink is dangerous (author is not encouraging young people to drink).

       Does the author support this main point?  How?

  • 2 point response:  The author offers anecdotal and factual support for his claim:
    • He learned to drink alcohol through his own college experience.
    • His nephew, now attending the same college, knows many students who binge drink alone, often in the woods to avoid being caught.
    • Despite various attempts by colleges to reduce it, binge drinking persists on campuses at alarming rates.
  • 1 point response:  Any response that cites some, but not all support for the main point.
  • 0 point response:  No supporting points cited at all.

 So What?

  • 2 point response:  We need to change the way we think about this:  If you can vote and fight in a war, you ought to be able to drink.
  • 1 point response:  We have to lower the drinking age to 18 (not quite, he is suggesting it would be difficult to do this and that we need to change the culture first).
  • 0 point response:   We have to outlaw binge drinking (author never suggests this).

Is there another way to see it?

  • 2 point responses:
    • Is binge drinking only on the rise among college students?  What if it is on the rise among all age groups?  That would weaken the author’s argument.
    • The author says that legislators raised the drinking minimum as a reaction to the “raw emotion deployed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” but he does not tell us whether deaths due to drunk driving have decreased as a result of raising the minimum age.  Have they?  If so, maybe we need to change nothing.
  • 1 point response:  It is up to parents to teach their children social habits, including how to drink and how to abide with the law as it is (a counter argument based too much on personal  opinion).
  • 0 point response:  No counter argument offered.

What Does All this Have to Do with Writing?!

This exercise in teaching students to become critical readers and then tracking the results is an important step in teaching them to think.  And remember, writing is thinking on paper.  When you teach your students to write an argument, you will ask them to use the kind thinking in their own work that they used to critique arguments such as this one.  Then you can grade them using a writing rubric that flows directly from the reading rubric.  

Coming soon:  How to craft and use a writing rubric that tracks critical thinking progress.

Assessment: First things First: Does the Writer Have Anything Worthwhile to Say?

In many ways, a well-written essay is like a well-built house.  If it has a solid structure it can be turned into something good pretty easily.  When a writer has something worthwhile to say, can back it up, and can tell us why we need to know it, he is well on his way to building a structurally sound essay.  Like a house in need of updating, the essay may need sprucing up: more description, less redundancy, better transitions, but these stylistic changes are not difficult to master once the basic structure of the argument is in place.

On the other hand, if a writer has no real point (or has not yet figured out what point she is trying to make), no amount of stylistic improvement — rich vocabulary, clever transitions, etc. — will make her essay good.

So the next time you read one of your student’s essays, remember:  If a house is missing fundamentals such as a staircase to the second floor, washing the windows and getting rid of dated wall paneling will not improve its value.  Similarly, if the structure of an essay is not sound, i.e., if its basic point is not worth making or not well defended, having the writer revise it to get rid of redundancies and run-on sentences will not result in a good essay.

As writer Sholem Asch observes, “Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.”

How Can You Tell Whether You Are Making Progress? Formative Assessments Part 1

Here’s the good news:  When you keep your approach to teaching writing simple, you can keep your approach to tracking achievement simple.  

It is important, both in teaching writing and in talking about how to teach writing, to keep jargon to a minimum.  The problem with most “how to teach writing” resources is that they are way too complicated and crammed with words that few people use on a regular basis.  Good writing is about making a strong point, backing it up, and telling us why we need to know it. It is pretty simple when you think about it — but less simple when you try to teach it.  Because to teach writing well, you have to reinforce these basic points day after day.  And if you do, you will see progress.

For students to become good writers, you must first teach them to think.  But how do you measure progress in thinking?  Fortunately, it is pretty easy.  Back in the 1950s, Benjamin Bloom proposed a way to classify how students think, the now-famous Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning.  It is interesting and educators talk about it all the time. (If you have been out of Education classes for a while and you need to refresh your memory, here is a good explanation from the University of Georgia.)

The problem with Bloom’s Taxonomy, is that, interesting as it is, it is still way too complicated to be useful to teachers as they try to figure out whether their students are actually learning to think (and therefore to write).  And so, for the purpose of keeping it simple, we are going to adapt Bloom’s basic premises to develop simple assessments.

Let’s start with the basics:  What kind of thinking leads to good writing?  Simply stated, well-written (or spoken) works should answer the following questions: 

  1. What is the point?
  2. Is the point one that is worth making?
      • Is it obvious?  (Do we already know it?)
      • Is it arguable? How?
      • Is it important? Why?
      • Is it interesting? In what way?
  3. Does the author adequately support that point?  If so, How?
      • Appeals to our emotion or to our belief in the author’s sterling reputation are not support for a main point, but are worth talking about.
  4. Does the author tell why we need to know what he has written (spoken)?
  5. Is there another way to look at look at it? 
      • Can you take what the author is saying and come up with a different main point or conclusion?

 Each of these questions targets a different level of thinking.

For instance:

    • Your first quiz might be just a short reading passage and a follow-up question asking your students to identify the main point in the passage.  If a student can identify the main point accurately, she is ready to learn how to assess whether a point is one worth making.  
    • Your second quiz might be a passage with follow-up questions that require the student to  both identify the main point and identify whether it is a point worth making
    • Your next task  is to teach students how to consider whether a point is well supported.  Thus, your next assessment might be a quiz in which you ask students to identify the main point, analyze whether it is a point worth making, and evaluate how well the point is supported.

Get the idea?  The five questions form a simple rubric (we get more specific on this in workshops)  which you can use to assess how well students are progressing in their critical thinking/writing skills.  And simple rubrics are the way to go in teaching writing — if you need to learn a new vocabulary to assess student writing,  there’s a problem.  Remember the basics:

      • What is your point?
      • How do you back it up?
      • Why do we need to know it?

Stay tuned for more on assessments — tracking progress is critical!